Review of Superman Returns Remains a Spectacular Misfire 15 Years Later

Superman Returns Remains a Spectacular Misfire 15 Years Later

I remember the night vividly: I was sitting behind a rotting old desk at the college gym I worked at, busily scanning membership passes and doing my best to make the time fly by. Normally, the job was rather mundane, consisting of scanning, greeting, scanning, greeting, scanning, and more greeting for eight hours straight, but at least I got a desk computer to help the time pass. Often I worked on homework when I wasn’t drawing, doodling, or wishing to holy hell the college students would stop appearing by the dozens to disrupt my workflow.

However, this night was special. After plenty of teases, including a video diary series and a cryptic website, Bryan Singer was finally going to unleash the first teaser trailer to Superman Returns — perhaps my most anticipated movie ever. No, seriously. I grew up watching, nay, living the Superman films starring Christopher Reeve. I knew the original movie by heart and spent plenty of time as a kid reenacting the Zod battle at the end of Superman II. My dad took me to see Superman IV: The Quest for Peace on opening day, and I can actually vividly recall sitting in a theater watching with mouth agape as the Man of Steel battled Nuclear Man on the Moon — perhaps the most thrilling cinematic moment my 5-year old self had seen up until that point.

Naturally, as I grew older, my taste for darker superheroes like Batman and X-Men took hold, but I still held a soft spot for the Reeve films; and spent a good deal of time, even as a teenager, basking in John Williams’ incredible score. And so, my expectations for Singer’s follow-up/sequel/reboot/reimagining were sky-high.

The teaser trailer only increased my excitement. I mean, check out this sucker:

I mean, holy Hell. That music. That footage. That final shot. That Marlon Brando voice-over. Suddenly, I was 5-years old again. All I needed was a towel around my neck and a paper “S” taped to my shirt.

Finally, we were getting a proper Superman movie with modern-day special FX guided by a capable director whose previous work included the Oscar-winning film The Usual Suspects and the enormously entertaining X2: X-Men United. Surely, this would be the comic book film, nay, the film of 2006, right?

Alas, it was not to be. Superman Returns was a crushing disappointment undone by some truly bizarre creative choices.

Admittedly, I saw the film three or four times in theaters. I wanted to like it. Truly, I did. At one point I even convinced myself it was a great film and engaged in furious debates with friends and family who thought otherwise. I even purchased the damned thing on DVD, watched it once, and then shelved it for about a decade before watching it a final time … and only then did I see what everyone else saw: a spectacular misfire.

Superman Returns has some amazing moments. The opening credit sequence is the stuff of dreams, mainly due to John Ottman’s wonderful score (a combination of Williams’ original theme and his own truly breathtaking material). Here, we learn that Superman has left Earth in order to look for remnants of Krypton. All good so far. We hear Brando’s Jor-El as the camera pans over the ice planet Krypton just as it explodes … silence … and then the words “Warner Bros. Pictures Presents” retrofitted in that spiffy three-dimensional FX followed by that spectacular Superman theme. (I do wish they would’ve pumped up the swooshing sound FX to match those of the original film.)

Man, I told my brother at the time, echoing a line from Superman IIthis is gonna be good!

The film then cuts to Lex Luthor’s introduction during which we learned the Greatest Criminal of Our Time had spent the last several years, ahem, fulfilling an old, dying woman’s desires in order to inhabit her estate. Kevin Spacey, while a little too obvious a casting choice, chews up the villain role with aplomb, aided by Parker Posey’s terrific Kitty (perhaps the best character in the entire film).

Again, so far so good.

We then cut to Martha Kent (an underutilized Eva Marie Saint) washing dishes when we get our first of many “shots of shaking things” that curiously make up about 75% of Superman Returns’ runtime. (One could actually make a fun drinking game out of this.)

Still, Superman returns … cool! Then, we’re on Lex’s boat. We see the dastardly villain swap exposition with Kitty, there’s a quick trip to the Fortress of Solitude, which is still operational, somehow, after the events of Superman II — the film Singer’s film directly follows. I think.

“You act like you’ve been here before,” Kitty says as the audience tries to process what the hell she’s talking about.

That’s one of the curious things about this film. Is it a follow-up to Superman: The Movie and Superman II? If so, why isn’t it set in the 1980s? Why doesn’t it continue the storyline established in the previous two films? Why does it feature a 27 year old Superman and a 22 year old Lois Lane? If we go by the film’s timeline, Superman knocked her up when she was 17 … what?

Also, what’s with the random shots of Super Boy learning his powers? These moments add nothing to the story and only reinforce the notion that Singer wanted to do a straight-up remake of Richard Donner’s film, but, for whatever reason, opted to go in a completely different direction and resulted in a quasi-remake, quasi-sequel.

The film shifts to Metropolis where Clark Kent tries to reintegrate back into a society that has long passed him. We meet Jimmy Olsen (Sam Huntington, completely leaning into the film’s cheeky tone), Perry White (Frank Langella, in a truly perplexing performance — part doped-up Nixon, part Kramer). We see The Daily Planet. Lois, still only 22, mind you, has won a Pulitzer for writing an article titled “Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman” … and then it happens: Clark discovers Lois is engaged to Richard (James Marsden), the poor bastard who has lived under the notion that he is the father of Lois’ child, Jason. Except, he’s not the father of Lois’ child. We know this the moment we see the kid smiling between the happy couple.

What the hell?

First of all, no matter how many times it fails — Star Wars — Episode I: The Phantom Menace, The Mummy Returns, or any TV sitcom ever — Hollywood continues to shoehorn in precocious children in the hopes of adding fresh blood to a stale series. In this case, you can tell Singer regrets the decision to center his story around a kid immediately as practically every line uttered by Jason is spoken offscreen. The poor kid has nothing to do in the film other than serving as a reminder that Lois must have leached onto Dick days after Superman left, had sex with him, and then convinced the witless ass that Jason was his kid.

Think about that for a second.

Why not just say Lois had Jason, then met Richard later? Because it would spoil the “surprise” when Jason drops a piano on a goon’s head.

Anyways, on first viewing, I don’t recall thinking too much about this bizarre storyline. We were only 26 minutes into the film and I was still too occupied waiting for something to happen. Luckily, we get that kick-ass airplane action scene, after a really long sequence featuring a needlessly over-the-top train model. This film cost a reported $223M, 24% of which was probably spent on that ridiculous train set.

During this prolonged sequence, we get another oddity: Kal Penn. You know, the actor from Harold & Kumar? Yeah, he’s in this movie too … and he has zero lines. None. Zip. I mean, he may say something over the radio near the end of the film, but otherwise just stares eerily into the camera. I remember the audience laughing in anticipation of his hilarious antics — why else would you cast him in the movie? Except, the man does nothing here. Nothing. It’s one of the more bizarre cameos in film history. And yes, I know I’ve used the word “bizarre” quite a bit already, whilst also going full hyperbolic with some of my statements, but this is truly one of the more bizarre films I’ve ever seen.

The train bit lasts nearly seven minutes, and we’re officially over 30 minutes into this film.

Thankfully, the plane sequence happens and, yeah, it’s actually pretty great, despite featuring some distractingly bizarre (even for its day) FX work. The buildup to this bit is great, including the classic shirt rip — though, another weird shot of Perry being weird on his laptop ruins the tension. Why is he so weird in this movie? 

When Superman is finally revealed amidst that grand Williams theme, hoisting a rocket on his back like some otherworldly god, goosebumps ensue. The suit looks good … ish. The “S” is a little small and something about those really tight, bright blue spandex just doesn’t seem right, but it works.

Ok, so it took a while to get going, but now we’re up, up and away —

Actually, nope. We get another odd scene with Perry (the only character who has aged in-between films) directing his troops to get as much coverage on Superman as possible, ending his rally with a weak, “Does he stand for truth, justice, all that stuff?” because the film needs to sell in overseas markets.

Then, we’re introduced to the kid. And look, the actor playing the kid is cute, but the character, as Roger Ebert declared, “mostly stares at people like a beta version of Damien, the kid from The Omen.” He’s not wrong.

Why have the kid in this film at all? Why not just say Lois moved on from Superman with another dude? And that dude is actually a really great guy, maybe even more noble and charismatic than the Man of Steel. Is that not enough drama? You can still have the weird Superman-stalking-Lois scenes, and that flat reenactment of the “Can You Read My Mind” sequence from Superman: The Movie. Hell, much of the movie can stay the same. And why?

Because nothing else happens in this movie.

There’s a bank heist that culminates in one of the most unnecessarily extravagant shots ever:

A needlessly complex shot that ends on … a newspaper reveal. (This bit always bugged me. I don’t get its purpose other than to add a little style to an otherwise expository scene?)

That moment plays out like a deleted scene they forgot to score. Seriously, it’s really bizarre.

Then there’s yet another bizarre Perry moment where he, mid-conversation with Lois and Jimmy, gets up and looks out his window for no particular reason at all. Is this man dying? Is he senile?

Later, once Lex unveils his “diabolical plan” to create an uninhabitable crystal island out in the middle of the ocean for real estate purposes, during which exactly zero military reinforcements show up to evaluate the situation, we witness a painfully long sequence in which young Jason plays piano with a goon for about 50 minutes while Lois tries to send a fax.

That’s only half of the scene.

I get it. Singer is trying to build suspense. That’s what he does best as a director as noted in films like The Usual Suspects and Valkyrie, but this piano thing goes on for what feels like an eternity and only ends because the kid decides to “shock the audience” by kicking a piano at the goon in order to save his mum. Some people let out an audible gasp in the theater during this moment. Others were just baffled.

Keep in mind that we’re 1 hour and 40 minutes into the film and have seen Supes for exactly two minutes, or at least it feels that way. The big guy saves some people in another brief montage (replete with more shaking objects footage), during which Perry has another weird scene where, after nearly being crushed by the Daily Planet’s, um, planet, utters “Great Cesar’s ghost” like a friggin’ weirdo:

It should be noted that most of the big Superman moments clock in at less than half the time of the train scene and that bizarre piano bit.

Anyways, Supes then gets his ass handed to him by Luthor in an admittedly powerful scene:

Luckily, Superman gets rescued by Dick, soaks some sunlight, and pushes Lex’s island into the sky, a moment that provides us more shaking objects footage, whilst also raising the very fundamental question: how strong is Superman? At the beginning of the film he kinda struggles with a plane, then later kinda struggles with a boat, and, at the end of the movie, kinda struggles with an entire landmass packed with deadly Kryptonite. Something’s amiss.

At any rate, Superman falls to the Earth as a bunch of civilians (including a few random weirdos who are walking their dogs despite the influx of chaos happening in and around Metropolis) watch from afar. He’s declared mostly dead, but Lois’ reveal that Jason is his kid turns out to be the medicine the big guy needs and he wakes up from his coma and zips over to break into the poor boy’s house in order to deliver a Marlon Brando-sized speech no one, including the young lad, hears.

Despite the decidedly downbeat tone of the film, Singer completes his epic with a reprisal of Williams’ score as Superman flies past the camera like the good ole days … except, it just doesn’t quite fit with the tone of the movie. (Plus, what’s up with CGI Routh?) We just watched a film in which Superman lost the love of his life to a Dick and we’re exiting the theater on a happy note?

Ok, I honestly didn’t expect to do this deep of a dive into Superman Returns, but I got typing and couldn’t stop.

Look, there are a lot of people who like this film, some may even love it. Upon its release, Empire gave Returns five stars and compared it to Lord of the Rings. And honestly, despite my 2,000+ word rant, it isn’t that bad. Indeed, there are some genuinely great moments, and a few sparkling performances littered throughout.

Here’s the thing: I get what Singer was trying to do. Superman is, in all honesty, kind of a boring guy. He’s a Boy Scout with the powers of God. Singer wanted to test that good ole boy attitude against modern-day cynicism. It’s an interesting concept, one that later paid dividends in Marvel’s Captain America: Winter Soldier, where incorruptible Steve Rogers must remain stoic amidst an increasingly corrupt society; and Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, where Batman struggles to remain true to his personal code whilst dealing with a psychotic enemy with no moral center.

Where Singer fails is in the actual setup of this particular scenario which asks audiences to care about characters from a bygone era. Sure, people like the Richard Donner Superman films, but it’s a stretch to think younger audiences, even those in 2006, were reenacting scenes from a film released nearly three decades prior. Everything that happens with the characters is based on relationships that took place in 1978, or 1981 if we’re assuming Superman II somehow fits into all of this — and if it does, didn’t Superman make Lois forget they had a relationship? So, did she wake up pregnant one day and just assume she slept with Superman?

Nothing. Adds. Up.

As such, you get a film too old-fashioned for modern-day audiences, and too confusing for fans of the original series. Add in Dick, the most bizarre Perry White ever conceived, a silly Lex Luthor real estate plot, a dumb kid, and far too many drawn-out scenes of “suspense” and you have yourself a recipe for a spectacular misfire. And while I applaud Singer for swinging for the fences, there were just too many odd choices made on Superman Returns to keep it from achieving greatness.

Though, to be fair, if not for Superman Returns, we never would have received Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel. So, I guess there’s a happy ending to this story after all.


The post Superman Returns Remains a Spectacular Misfire 15 Years Later appeared first on ComingSoon.net.

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